Backpack program provides school supplies for homeless students at Camillus House

Debra Albo-Steiger, head of Project Up-Start, at the Up-Start Shop at Lindsey Hopkins Technical Education Center in Miami.
Debra Albo-Steiger, head of Project Up-Start, at the Up-Start Shop at Lindsey Hopkins Technical Education Center in Miami. For the Miami Herald

For Alexander King Jr., back-to-school season in a single-mother household with four siblings meant arriving to the first day of classes without the necessary supplies to succeed.

“My mom did the best she could,” said King, 20, a student at Miami Dade College. “She used to overstock on paper, but then we didn’t have pens, we didn’t have pencils. I remember going to first day of school and asking my classmates for some pencils to write.”

This year, things are different for King. He is one of the 85 students staying at Camillus House who arrived to class with a brand new backpack full of supplies and ready to learn, thanks to the initial efforts of Latoya C. Brown, an associate attorney at Colson Hicks Eidson Law Group in Coral Gables.

During the summer, Brown decided it was time to give back to her community. She reached out to colleagues Stephanie Casey and Natalie Rico. Together, they organized a back-to-school supply drive for underprivileged students.

“We were flooded with donations and the generosity of the entire community,” Brown said. “It went beyond just the legal community. Business and professional groups participated, even the Miami Parking Authority. Truly overwhelming in a positive sense.”

Brown partnered with the Miami-Dade Chapter of the Florida Association for Women Lawyers and the Dade County Bar Association. More than 35 law firms and local organizations participated in the event, which brought $10,000 in donations for needy students.

Born in Jamaica, Brown moved to South Florida with her family as a teenager. At 18, she enrolled at Florida International University and earned her law degree there in 2013.

“I wasn’t born with a silver spoon,” she said. “It took a lot of hard work for me to get where I am now. Having a big support system is what helped me through. I want underprivileged children and youth to grow up knowing they can do something with their life.”

The donations were split between Camillus House and Miami-Dade County Public Schools’ Project Up-Start, which assists students living in homeless shelters, on the streets, in motels or couch surfing.

“Latoya really went above and beyond,” said Alessandra Laricchia, Camillus House’s community relations manager. “They not only made sure every student from Camillus House had supplies, but they carefully assembled the backpacks themselves. They organized by gender, age and grade, supplying for each student’s specific needs. It was done with great detail and care.”

By Aug. 1, Brown had reach her initial goal of giving each of the 85 students currently staying at Camillus House a new filled-up backpack. But the community kept sending in supplies.

Brown contacted Project Up-Start. The project provides underprivileged students everything they might need, from school supplies to toiletries and clothes.

“Most people think of things like notebooks and pens, but Ms. Brown thought outside the box with supplies such as thumb drives and flash drives. She was able to give us some of those items that donors don’t usually think about. She very much embraced it and kept giving and giving,” said Debra Albo-Steiger, head of Project Up-Start.

About 6,000 students and families benefited from Project Up-Start last year. Nearly 1,000 have been helped with the program in the current school year. Brown and her team plan on making the drive a yearly effort to help students across the community.

Price Destinobles, a Florida International University sophomore, benefited from Project Up-Start while attending North Miami High School.

“It was a real blessing to encounter help when I needed it most,” he said. “Not having to worry about getting the supplies you need for school helps you focus on learning.”